Ham Radio: How Much Does It Cost to Get On HF?

UPDATE! UPDATE! UPDATE! See this video for more updated information.

In an earlier post I discuss costs associated with becoming a Technician Class ham radio operator and getting the proper equipment to get on the air. This post describes the costs to upgrade to General (or Extra) Class and get on the air on HF. As with the Technician Class equipment, you can spend as much as you want to, so I’ll focus on what I would consider to be a minimum satisfactory station, meaning one you can have lots of fun with and will serve as a foundation as you explore additional modes of operation. For our purposes, we’re looking at HF Single Sideband (SSB, meaning voice) operation.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that simply purchasing an HF radio will get you on the air. There are quite a number of additional elements you should consider. In previous posts, I discuss the radios available from Yaesu, Icom, and Kenwood. For our purposes we’ll use the entry-level radio from Icom, the IC-718. Note that prices change with time. The prices I use below are mostly from Ham Radio Outlet as of today (24 Sept 2011). Please note that I have not actually used the IC-718 myself (my radio is a Ten-Tec Jupiter, a mid-range rig), but all the modern equipment is quite capable and will allow you to use other modes such as CW and digital.

Here are the elements, quite briefly:

  • The ARRL General Class License Manual 7th Edition, $29.95 plus $10.50 shipping, total $40.45. You may be able to get this from Amazon or some other source, but be certain it is the most recent.
  • Exam fee for upgrade from Technician to General (or Amateur Extra), $15, paid to the Volunteer Examination team.
  • The radio itself, in this case I’m using the Icom IC-718 for this sample station, available from HRO for $639.95 (plus tax if you live in a state which has an HRO storefront, such as Colorado), let’s say 7%, so add $44.80). HRO ships this item for free. Total $684.75. The radio comes with a microphone and a power cable, so you don’t need to buy those separately.
  • Antenna tuner. The IC-718 does not come with a built-in antenna tuner. Even if it did, most radios with built-in antenna tuners only tune up to 3:1 SWR. (Ten-Tec radios tune a wider range, but they don’t have a truly entry-level radio—their Eagle and Jupiter are mid-level rigs.) I love my MFJ-993B automatic antenna tuner, which tunes all sorts of antennas automatically. You can save a bit by getting a manual antenna tuner with built-in SWR meter, but after using my MFJ-993B, I wonder why I ever bothered with a manual tuner! HRO carries these for $249.95, with free shipping. Again, add tax at 7% of $17.50 for total of $267.45.
  • Power supply—13.8vdc. Powerwerx has the SS-30DV, which you can purchase for HRO for $119.95 plus 7% tax of $8.40, total $128.35. HRO ships this item for free. Note that this power supply can be reused for other 100W radios, which most are. Also, you can power your VHF station at the same time with this power supply, so if you purchased a 20A or greater power supply for your tech station, you’re already set.
  • Antenna—you’ll find a wide variety of antennas. You can make your own or you can use a factory-built wire antenna. You’ll need some way to hold it up in the air. Note that you may need to be very creative if you live in an area with covenants that forbid external antennas. A simple wire antenna is not very visible. For our sample station I include the MFJ-1778 G5RV antenna, which is 102 feet long and covers 80 through 10 meters, available from HRO for $44.95. This item does not qualify for free shipping by itself, so order it along with something that does. 7% tax would be $3.15, total $48.10. If you don’t have enough space for this, MFJ makes a junior version, the MFJ-1778M, which is only 52 feet long but does not cover 80 meters, which, for a first station, is probably okay. Please note that you will definitely need the antenna tuner if you use this antenna. I’m going to throw in another $20 for miscellaneous mounting stuff, such as rope or brackets, so lets say a total of $70. There are many, many ways to make suitable antennas. Personally, I use a homebrew 80m full-wavelength horizontal loop fed with ladder line, which tunes on all amateur bands from 80m through 10m.
  • Coax cable. You need a short piece with PL-259 connectors on each end to connect the radio to the antenna tuner, plus a long piece to connect the tuner to the antenna. Let’s just select some from HRO’s catalog. Personally I’m partial to RG-8X cable for HF work, so we can pick CABLE XPERTS CXP08XC3 3 FT RG8X CABLE W PL259 CONNECTORS for $19.95 for the short one, and CABLE XPERTS CXP08XC100 100 FT RG8X W PL259ST INSTALLED for $54.95. (You can do better than this if you buy bulk cable and install the connectors yourself.) That totals $74.90 plus $5.25 tax, total $80.15.
  • Grounding. You can ground your radio to a cold water pipe, but only if the plumbing is metal all the way including the supply line. That’s not usually a good bet, though, because very often the supply line is plastic. So, let’s purchase an 8-foot ground rod from True Value for $21. You’ll need a clamp to hook your ground wire to the ground rod, say $4. And then you need your ground wire. Lots of hams use grounding braid such as is available from HRO (Cable Xperts 2332 at $0.69/foot). Let’s assume 25 feet. Note that your radio should be as close to the ground rod as possible, which usually means putting your station on the first floor or in the basement. It’s better to be closer to the station ground than to the antenna. You can use any wire you want to connect to the ground, but it ought to be as thick as possible for low loss. I use #2 wire from my ground rod into the shack (perhaps 15 feet) and then braid from there (perhaps six feet). 25 feet of braid would be $17.25. Add ground rod and clamp, that’s $42.25 plus $2.96 tax, total $45.21.

Wow! That’s lots of stuff! As you can see, this is more of an investment than your entry-level Technician-class gear. And this is a simple, though very workable, sample station. Let’s add it all up.

Manual 40.45
Test Fee 15.00
Radio 684.75
Tuner 267.45
Power Supply 128.35
Antenna 70.00
Coax 80.15
Ground 45.21

Total 1131.36

So there you are. Needless to say, you might be able to save a bit here and there, but I think this is probably the minimum you’d spend for a satisfactory HF station. You can, of course, spend lots more!

One last word of advice: get a mentor! In ham radio, mentors are called “elmers.” To get on HF, you need one! Using HF is more difficult than VHF and it’s nice to have someone to coach you. You can probably find one via your local ham radio club. Here in my area, that would be the Montrose Amateur Radio Club. Please don’t try setting up an HF station all by yourself—you’ll get very frustrated. But with some mentoring, you’ll find HF radio far more rewarding than VHF alone. You can talk to people all over the world on HF!

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9 Responses to Ham Radio: How Much Does It Cost to Get On HF?

  1. Dave says:

    Hi, Art, the software-defined radio techniques have been around for a couple decades now. What’s catching up is hardware’s ability to sample at yet higher rates. The 7300 uses new technology to do the sampling pretty much at the antenna. All the rest is done in software. What’s cool about software is that the manufacturer can release new firmware (software) for the radio that can add or improve capabilities. 73, Dave

  2. Art Davis says:

    Thanks for the reply, Dave. I see that the iCom 7300 samples and digitizes the incoming rf—so all the guts of the radio is purely digital. As an OT that makes me a bit nervous (perhaps the conservatism which inevitably follows age?). Is this a relatively new and untested technology? Do you have any words of wisdom comparing the practical aspects of this approach with the superhet?

  3. Dave says:

    Hi Art, lots has changed and continues to change. The buzz nowadays seems to be the Icom 7300. The choice of an HF rig is highly personal, and very few stay with their first radio forever. My first HF radio was a Heathkit HW-16, then a Yaesu FT-201, then a Drake TR-3 (briefly), then a Yaesu FT-747 (which I used for many years), followed by TenTec Jupiter (which I used for many years), and now a Yaesu FTDX3000.

  4. Art Davis says:

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your great articles and videos. I have just returned to ham radio after a forty plus year absence and am relying on you heavily for easing the culture shock!

    I notice that your “hf startup costs” here say you are suggesting an icom transceiver, whereas your Youtube video goes with the Yaesu FT-911. I assume the latter is more recent. Am I right?

    I’d be interested in knowing what elements have changed between the times of these recommendations.

    Thanks for your helpful videos!


  5. James Simmons says:

    I used your study videos and QRZ study test to retune my brain to Ham Radio. I was licensed as a novice in 08/1977; up graded to General class 03/1979; moved to Calif. in 1991. Worked shift work away from home for the Utility company till 2005; finally got relocated to Texas 2013. Was in active for about 23 years. Your videos and this new fangled thing called a PC has made the relicense process fairly painless. Passed my new General License on 03/2014 with a grade of 100%. Thanks for the help and I’ll recommend your web sight to anyone that wants to become a HAM. WD5FHY

  6. Dave says:

    Hi Steve, I’m glad you found the videos helpful. First, I strongly recommend that you do not purchase any HF equipment until you’ve passed your General exam. After that, I’m a big fan of entry-level radios. These days even the entry-level radios (such as the Yaesu FT-857D, or maybe a Ten-Tec Eagle) are just as good, from a technical point of view, as even the best radios from twenty years ago. Almost all HF activity is done with a few simple features. HF is an entirely different operating experience from VHF. I recommend a fairly simple radio for the first few years as you get used to how HF works. Then you can choose your upgrade radio. Regarding the K3, it is a very high end radio with many, many features for experienced contesters and DXers. It’s like learning to fly, but stepping into a Boeing 747 as your first plane instead of a Piper Cub. That said, if you have friends who can mentor you through all the K3’s bells and whistles, it might be a good (though expensive) choice. On my ham radio home page, see the section “Getting on HF with your General Class License – a look at station necessities.” It lists the radio lineup for the major manufacturers. I need to update it, as it doesn’t include the high-end Kenwood 990S, nor the mid-range Yaesu FT-1200 and FT-3000, but it gives you a good idea of what’s out there. Hope this helps! 73, Dave

  7. Steve Hylton says:

    I love your videos. I used them to pass the technicians test and am working on general. What are your thoughts on the Elecraft K3 as my first HF rig?

  8. dave says:

    I use Ham Radio Outlet (http://www.hamradio.com) a lot. You can get current prices from their website for the IC-718 and accessories. Regarding the phone patch, those are pretty hard to come by these days since they don’t see much use. You might check eBay or look at old QSTs. I haven’t been personally involved in an HF phone patch for probably 35 years–not a common activity anymore. My most recent ARRL Handbook is 2010 and it doesn’t even have an index entry for a phone patch.

  9. chatterpaul persaud says:

    i need a IC718 ham radio with antenna and phone patch how much does it cost

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